• ECP authorised to seek technical help to enable overseas Pakistanis to cast their votes
• Govt confident of securing parliamentary nod to ordinance within 120 days
• ECP warns of serious repercussions if law is passed in haste
ISLAMABAD: In what appears to be a hasty move, the government on Saturday promulgated a presidential ordinance authorising and binding the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to procure electronic voting machines (EVMs) and to enable the overseas Pakistanis to exercise their right to vote while staying in their country of residence in the next general elections.
President Arif Alvi promulgated the Elections (Second Amendment) Ordinance 2021 under Article 89 of the Constitution only two days after National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser had constituted a committee of the cabinet members to engage the opposition on the issue of electoral reforms.
Through the ordinance, the president has introduced two amendments to Section 94(1) and Section 103 of the Elections Act 2017.
“The Commission (ECP), shall with the technical assistance of the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) or any other authority and agency, enable overseas Pakistanis to exercise their right to vote during general elections in their country of residence,” says the amended Section 94(1), while the amended Section 103 stated: “The Commission (ECP) shall procure electronic voting machines (EVMs) for casting of votes in general elections.”
Previously, the relevant section stated: “The ECP may conduct pilot projects for voting by overseas Pakistanis and utilisation of EVMs and biometric verification system in by-elections in addition to the existing manual procedures for voter verification, casting and counting of votes to assess the technical efficacy, secrecy, security and financial feasibility of the EVMs and biometric verification system.”
Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry, however, justified the move to promulgate the ordinance.
Talking to Dawn on Saturday, the minister explained that the government move was aimed at providing ample time to the ECP to make arrangements for the use of EVMs and for enabling the overseas Pakistanis to cast their votes in the next general elections.
He recalled that the ECP before the 2018 general elections had argued that the commission had not been given sufficient time to make such arrangements. Therefore, he said, the ECP was being provided an opportunity to seek the assistance of Nadra or any other agency for making the arrangements before the next elections. He said a Spanish firm had already been engaged for providing technical assistance to the ECP to facilitate voting by overseas Pakistanis in the elections.
The minister claimed that the ECP was on board on both the issues.
He said the purpose of promulgating the ordinance was to show the PTI government’s commitment towards the two issues. “We have issued the ordinance, because we have decided about it,” Mr Chaudhry said, explaining that he had talked about the approval of the two ordinances by the federal cabinet in his recent press briefing also.
Asked as to what would happen when the ordinance would lapse after completing its 120-day constitutional life, the minister sounded confident saying that they would get it approved in the form of an amendment bill from the parliament claiming to have the required numbers. He said they had decided to go ahead with their planned electoral reforms without the opposition parties, as they did not look serious on the issue. He said the move would ‘expose’ the opposition parties.
The party position in both the houses of the parliament, however, shows that the ruling alliance has a simple majority in the National Assembly but it is still in minority in the opposition-dominated Senate.
However, when contacted on the issue, the ECP rejected the government claim that it was on board on the matter.
An official of the ECP, while talking to Dawn on condition of anonymity, said the ECP was not part of the meetings chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan on the use of technology in the elections, while the meetings held at Aiwan-i-Sadr were “academic in nature” where only the concept of voting machines and their specifications, and not policy issues, came under discussion.
He recalled that the PM had been shown a nine-year-old “lab-produced voting machine” that the ECP had rejected at the very beginning for lacking features of international standards.
He said the government had promulgated the ordinances in haste and neither the government nor the ECP had the solution available with them. “They have simply done it on the basis of imagination,” he remarked.
The ECP official said internet voting was not in use anywhere across the world, except Estonia, where 175,000 out of total 900,000 voters opted for it.
Answering a question, the official said there were around nine million holders of National Identity Card for Overseas Pakistanis (NICOP) of over 18 years in the world, with 1.8m of them living in Saudi Arabia alone, followed by around 1.5m in the United Arab Emirates. The names of these nine million overseas Pakistanis are also on the electoral rolls.
Reiterating the ECP’s stated position, he said the ECP was not against technology but at the same time could not support the idea of using insecure technology. He warned that employing the technologies in haste could be counter-productive and compromise quality of polls. He claimed that international and local NGOs, too, had endorsed ECP’s stance on record.
The official was of the opinion that the government appeared to be in a position to impose the ordinances by getting them passed in a joint session of the parliament, but this would have serious consequences.
He also explained that holding of polls on a single day would be impossible if voting machines were to be used and there would be a need for staggered polls for which the parliament would have to ensure legal amendments.
The ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) had been pursuing these two issues since the 2013 general elections. PTI members in the parliamentary committee on electoral reforms, under the then finance minister Ishaq Dar, had raised the issues on multiple occasions. It was on PTI’s insistence that the provisions of Sections 94(1) and 103 were included in the Elections Act, 2017. President Alvi was also a member of the committee at that time and was in the forefront in convincing the ECP for the use of the EVMs and the voting by overseas Pakistanis.
The ECP conducted a mock exercise in 2015 in four countries and later commission officials informed the committee that the mock exercise carried out in Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, the United States and the UAE had failed for a number of technical and legal reasons.
During the mock exercise, the ECP faced difficulties in handling only 67 postal ballots, whereas 1.8 million overseas Pakistanis were living in Saudi Arabia alone at that time. Another problem that the ECP had pointed out to the committee was about sending ballot papers to overseas Pakistanis through email when a significant number of Pakistanis working as labourers in other countries had no access to emails. Other technicalities involved sending constituency-wise ballot papers on the basis of the addresses mentioned on their NICOP (National Identity Card for Overseas Pakistanis).
Also, a number of questions had been about the security of Nadra’s database if provided for online or offline verification of voters’ during elections.
The two main opposition parties — Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Pakistan Peoples Party— had earlier rejected the government’s talks offer on the issue, expressing the opinion that the use of EVMs would not work if the establishment did not agree to keep itself at distance from elections.
Published in Dawn, May 9th, 2021